Epiphanies can come at odd times in strange places; mine arrived on the floor of the bathroom as I disinfected the cat-litter box.
There was no lightning bolt, no clap of thunder, no visit from a stern angel. Just me, in my sweats and sticky vinyl gloves, suddenly thinking, “What in the heck am I doing?”
It was Sunday, a day considered sacred by a multitude of cultures, both ancient and modern. I had been raised in a faith that upheld the Fourth Commandment: Honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy. And I come from the South, where, until recently, stores did not open on Sunday, at least not until after church hours.
I am, in many ways, a traditionalist, but there I was, on a Sunday morning, scrubbing the litter box: the grungiest of tasks on the holiest of days.
This, I decided, was nuts.
I poured in new cat litter, stripped off my gloves, and summoned the kids for an announcement: From now on, we’re honoring the Sabbath.
Well, for a month anyway, to see exactly how it would pan out.
My kids, of course, were delighted. They range in age from 8 to 17, and as such, they are slothful by nature. It doesn’t take a lot of urging to get children to do less work. They want to not only honor the Sabbath, but the other six days of the week as well.
For me, however, the cessation of labor for 24 hours turned out to be a challenge. I am a neat freak, the kind of person who can’t close my eyes and say “om” if there are dirty dishes in the sink or warm clothes in the dryer.
For people like me, the most difficult part of being a parent isn’t the 3 a.m. feedings, or the ear tubes or the croup, or even watching four years of discretionary income vanish in the orthodontist’s chair. It’s the mess.
Wet towels on the floor, toothpaste on the toilet seat, crayons melting in inaccessible crevices of the Jeep. And oh dear God, the laundry. It reproduces madly, without shame. It is best if a mother can overlook these things, enjoy the moments, savor the important stuff. But children need order, and besides, for some of us, this is genetically impossible because our mothers were neat freaks, too. And so, because 90 percent of what we call parenting is really just housework in the presence of children, we assume the mantle of Sisyphus, every day pushing a giant dust bunny up the mountain with a Swifter, only to see it roll down and wait for us expectantly the next day.
A little-known fact about Sisyphus is that he also had to clean the litter-box each Sunday.
But not me. I’m done with that, at least for one day every week. Because in my trial month of Sundays, I uncovered something glorious, and that is the importance of special.
So often in the tedious march of real life, ordinariness overtakes us, and we escape it only on holidays. Christmas, Rosh Hashana, Thanksgiving, or for that matter, even Halloween, give us a burst of special, but often at great cost. We spend the weeks leading up to the holidays in a frenzy of shopping, cooking and decorating.
The holidays come, they are good, and if we’re not too tired, we enjoy them. But then they’re gone again, and life goes back to ordinary for a long time.
What I learned in my month of Sundays is this: To observe a personal Sabbath — whether it’s Saturday or Sunday, or even Wednesday if you want — to designate a mandatory holiday each week, is to give yourself a gift of heavenly proportions, whether or not you are motivated by faith.
I also learned that this is a gift that I must give myself.
Despite the kindly ministrations of my children, my mother and my friends, despite the occasional lick from the cat, I need nurturing that only the self can give, and a personal Sabbath supplies that. Truth is, no one is going to show up every Sunday and demand that I put my broom down and my feet up. I have to do that myself. And, let me tell you, it takes real effort not to work.
In the beginning, I tried to do everything the day before. All the clothes had to be laundered and put away; all the floors had to be clean; a day’s worth of meals prepared. But after a few exceedingly unpleasant Saturdays, I learned to let some things go. Now, as long as we have something to wear Sunday and Monday, the rest of the laundry can wait. As for meals, isn’t the Sabbath why God created take-out?
Sometimes it’s difficult to determine what qualifies as work. In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, driving, cooking, even flipping a light switch is taboo on the Sabbath. Pretty much, if it doesn’t involve prayer, reading and rest, they don’t do it.
For those of us who don’t follow the Talmud, it’s trickier. Some things are obvious: mopping a floor, scrubbing the litter box, splitting the atom. But what about, say, gardening? It’s physical work, but for many of us, it’s also a pleasure. What about cutting the grass, which I happen to enjoy, or exercising, or cleaning the paddock where my two donkeys reside, ignorant of the Fourth Commandment and its implications on their manure pile?
You figure it out in the end. The stalls have to be mucked, or by mid-afternoon, our flies would plot to overtake the world. I decided that gardening, for me, is okay, since I rarely break a sweat and it brings transcendent pleasure. The lawn mowing can wait; it is disruptive to the serenity that a properly observed Sabbath should offer.
Which brings me to one negative aspect of the experience: After six months of Sundays, I have become a Sabbath zealot. I get cross if a neighbor is out terrorizing his lawn with a leaf blower, or when I see whole families committing raking on a Sunday afternoon. “What’s the point?” I bellow to my children. “Why can’t people enjoy an honest day’s rest?
Is there anyone more annoying than someone who has just discovered an age-old principle of the good life?
And the good life it is, when you don’t have to scrub or shovel or iron, when it would actually be a transgression of a solemn pact with yourself, or with God, if you did; when you can enjoy your family and books and music and nature and friends without distraction, without thinking that you really should be unloading the dishwasher instead.
The best part: I get a day like this every week. One commandment down; nine to go. Now I’m trying not to covet my neighbor’s rad new leaf blower.